The Arty Semite

The Cantor Who Was Actually Jesus

By Eitan Kensky

  • Print
  • Share Share

It’s not giving anything away to say that Lifetime’s new movie “Twist of Faith” ends with its mismatched romantic leads back together, embracing on the threshold of her home. Nor does it reveal anything to note that Music and the Power of Song connect Toni Braxton’s Black Gospel singer with David Julian Hirsh’s doubting, erstwhile cantor. And it certainly doesn’t spoil the movie to mention that “Twist of Faith,” which Lifetime calls an “interfaith love story,” begins with the horrific murder of the cantor’s wife and children on an ordinary bus, on an ordinary day, in an indeterminate part of Orthodox New York. This is a Lifetime movie: love conquers all and violence expresses the persistent vulnerability of women. None of this makes watching “Twist of Faith” any less surreal.

Courtesy of Lifetime

It’s the misnomer “interfaith” that makes “Twist of Faith” mildly uncomfortable. We’re used to seeing intermarriages on TV and in movies. It’s almost easier to count the number of times that the Jewish hero ends up with a Jewish woman than it is to count the times he ends up with the American gentile woman; the former is so infrequent.

But we’re used to watching intermarriages and inter-dating with couples that are only residually or ethnically Jewish. They eat bagels and lox, drop a few Yiddish words, and otherwise go about their lives. For that matter, their spouses are only residually or ethnically Christian: they sit down for Easter dinner and drink cocktails with their meals. Their lives are inherently secular. Chrismukkah for all!

What’s strange is that “Twist of Faith” is a story about believers, religious doubters, and those who care passionately about God. It’s a story about trying to interpret God’s will, and how we comprehend human suffering. In some ways it’s one of the most admirable attempts to talk about faith and piety ever seen on screen, and it is respectful to Judaism as a religion. Yet it’s also uncomfortably Christian: the only person who can heal the Jew’s suffering is the righteous Gospel singer, and the only community that embraces him as a full servant of God is the Black church. The cantor is only the object in a story about Christian mercy, the recipient of other people’s acts of kindness. Also: he is possibly Jesus.

Part of the reason that “Twist of Faith” stands out is that there is no easy way to visualize faith. The camera can show a man wearing a kippah, or a black hat, but the camera cannot say anything about what happens inside. We watch the most fervid prayer without knowing if the words have meaning. Faith is something that has to be told, not shown. We have to listen to the believer express his faith, watch his deeds and then decide if he does so fully. From the other side, seeing a tallis and kippah elegantly folded, lying on a bed for others to put away, doesn’t tell us if the loss of faith is complete. The yearning for God can still lie within.

Such is the case in “Twist of Faith.” After the murder of his wife and children, and after a stultifying shiva, the cantor abandons Judaism and boards a bus headed to the deep South. He lives there as a vagrant, his clothes gradually becoming more disheveled. He sleeps on the ground outside of the Church where he is discovered by Toni Braxton’s son, Asher. (Toni Braxton is a good actress, but it is still impossible not to see her as Toni Braxton.) Asher believes in the Gospels and Christ’s message of mercy, and conspires with his uncle to care for the stranger, and to comfort him. They recognize his lost soul.

Yet even when he’s most separated from Judaism, the Cantor still retains shards of his faith. We watch him pray before eating food. He plays the Yiddish classic “Afn pripetshik” on the Church piano. When asked to say grace, he offers an English translation of the Shehechiyanu.

The point is that he wants to return to Judaism — only he falls completely for Toni Braxton. She supplants Judaism as the source of his religious strength. He returns physically to New York, and re-garbs himself in tzitzit and kippah. But he cannot spiritually re-transition. He goes back to Alabama, back to her arms, once again removing his religious clothing. This time the visuals speak. They tell us the story of his faith: it twists. It becomes faith in a person. Judaism can be abandoned. She heals him.

Is this interfaith? Only in the sense of two partners of different religious backgrounds coming together. This is a Christian story, and the cantor is a type for Jesus. He is a pious Jew that no longer fits in his community, a carpenter (this is emphasized constantly), and we can make an analogy between the cantor’s trip to Alabama and Jesus’s time in the wilderness, when his faith was tested. “Twist of Faith” is not an “interfaith love story,” but a sermon on the virtues of the Christian message and morals.

I’ll admit that I’m particularly attuned to this right now. At a recent event at the Harvard Divinity School, the editors of the new book, “My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation,” explained their rationale for structuring the book around contributors’ personal stories of interreligious encounters. They explained that storytelling acknowledges the speaker’s right to tell his story. In the moment of storytelling, the personal experiences of the speaker are validated and his identity is acknowledged. Storytellers force us to leave our positions as passive readers and to confront what it is like to see the world from their perspective, to be a Muslim at Harvard College decades ago, or to leave an evangelical home for a more liberal denomination of Christianity. The universalism of trying to be a religious person in a world where others don’t hold your beliefs cuts through the different backgrounds of the contributors. People respectfully see each other as equals. And that’s where interfaith dialogue begins.

But “Twist of Faith” shows how tenuous the act of storytelling is. In particular, the movie exposes how tightly bound our stories are, and how hard it is to disentangle them. “The Jew” has been the other in Christianity for millennia. “The Jew” is an essential part of the Christian story, used to validate Christianity as God’s truth. Movies like “Twist of Faith” should exist, and I hope that we’ll have TV movies about the merits of Judaism; they serve their purpose. But we cannot label them “interfaith love stories” when they weigh so heavily to one side. We cannot label them interfaith when only one side speaks.

Watch a preview for ‘Twist of Faith’:

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Twist of Faith, Toni Braxton, Television, Lifetime, Film, Eitan Kensky, David Julian Hirsh

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.